‘NO ADMISSION for assistant directors till November 2015’ reads a sign outside director Mysskin ’s home-office. An assistant opens the door to a surprisingly well-lit hall that has one half of a ping pong table at its centre. You are escorted into Mysskin’s room and at first sight all you see are books everywhere — Asimov, Shelley and, of course, Dostoyevsky — it’s all quite daunting. In a rare appearance without his signature dark glasses, Mysskin grants a late night interview. Excerpts:
With your Pisasu getting ready, you must be busy with interviews.
I think interviews are an important way of communication that extend beyond my films. The audience watches my movies and walks away liking or criticising them. But there’s more I’d like to tell them, so I try to be as honest as possible in my interviews. My candour has got me into a lot of trouble and made me controversial. But I think the industry and I have come to terms with it now.
Sometimes, I find people asking me things they know the answers to… such as why I have a kuthu song in my films. There are others who want to prove how smart they are. I also come across people with genuine questions, and answering them enriches me.
As far as promoting goes, I was a salesman for eight years and sold everything from transformers to undergarments, so I know how to sell myself and my films. With the success of my earlier films, the audience expects a certain standard from my movies and this has only made promotion easier.
You’ve been painted as a rebel in the industry. How do you handle this?
I used to get angry but I’ve learnt to deal with it now. People forget that movie makers are ordinary folks too. Of course, we are professionals, but we are not gods to be flawless. Filmmaking is like childbirth and if the child dies during labour, should you kill the mother? My films are not formulaic and I’m only trying to do something different with utmost sincerity. In this process, even my flaws enrich my life. I tell people if Mugamoodi went wrong, it was because I did not work hard. I’m not saying it was a bad movie but the film lacked balance and I have to take responsibility.
Have you ever thought you would be better understood in another film industry?
Of course not! I love the Tamil audience and would never want to make a Bengali, Hindi or Hollywood film. I feel our audience is extremely intelligent. I enjoy the respect I’ve got for my six films and my detractors don’t make me feel underappreciated.
Pisasudelves into the paranormal, but it isn’t the usual horror film. Was it hard to convince a producer such as Bala?
I have great respect for Bala sir as a director and he knows how to support a director like me. His opinions and suggestions matter a lot. He saw Onayum Aatukuttiyum and signed me on right after that. I pitched the idea of Pisasu and he was fine with it. The paranormal is highly unexplored as a subject, yet people have a negative idea of it because of what we’ve seen in movies and heard from stories. My intention is to give it a new angle without necessarily proving that ghosts exist.
Why do you say you always rate your films only 40 marks out of 100?
My movies don’t cross the 40 per cent mark when I analyse them. I’m no Kurosawa or Bresson to make films like A The Man Who Escaped, Seven Samurai or Red Beard. Each film is a plunge into the unknown; it is a lot of learning on the go. I have done away with certain shots I’ve used extensively in Anjathe and Chithiram Pesuthadi and have learnt more effective ways of communicating the narrative. So it’s a process of pushing yourself to do better. That’s why I don’t send my films to festivals; I’m only competing with myself.
Have your films come close to your original vision?
Even though my script is written in detail with some parts storyboarded, trying to get the film just like I’ve envisaged it will prevent me from improvising. For me, the process of filmmaking is like breaking into a spontaneous dance and it’s only on the editing table that I realise what I’ve got and what I’ve not. That’s why I don’t want to take credit for the metaphors and symbols in my films, as I don’t always plan them. It’s when the audience watches the film that they find the meanings.
All your films seem to have a psychological/philosophical undercurrent…
People ask me why I make only dark movies. I like to make psychological films as I read a lot of psychological literature. While writing, I try to travel into a character’s psyche — understand the motivations of the character. How does a worthless man get transformed into a police officer when wearing khaki? Why does a man become a criminal when he fails to become a police officer? These motivations interest me. I can’t help it if they’re dark.
Where does the filmmaking process end for you?
The umbilical cord that connects me to my film is severed with the last cut on the editing table. People will like it if it has been made sincerely, if not, it won’t work. Either way, it will not affect me as long as I know I’ve given it my all. Collective praise or ridicule of an art form shouldn’t gauge its value. The Brothers Karamazov. When Nandalala didn’t do well, there could have been multiple reasons for it and the audience alone cannot be blamed. Even today strangers come to me, telling me they cried while watching it; immediately there will be another person accusing me of copying Kikujiro. I’ve learnt to accept both responses with a smile.
I’ve realised that filmmaking is second nature to me. It’s the process of wrestling with an idea, writing it down. With thought and hard work, you breathe life into it and bring the characters alive on screen. At that point, I feel like a demigod — such is the ecstasy. I’m 43, and seven films old. I have a few more films left in me. Naturally, there will be a time when I’ll be driven out of movies. So, in this brief period, I will try to live life as intensely as possible.
Who is Mysskin outside films?
I was telling my friend how each film takes a year or two of my life. I love the process, but is there some higher purpose to it? I read, I visit museums and concerts, but should I be investing my time in something else? Perfecting an art form takes a lifetime. Poetry is another art form and, in fact, I feel it’s the greatest art form. Aspiring to write poetry is just being ambitious. So it would take me two lifetimes. I’ve learnt to find happiness in what I do.
What, according to you, is a successful film?
Even if a film has one beautiful compassionate scene, I’m floored. The rest of the 59 scenes don’t matter to me. I will go hug the filmmaker. When a movie called Vengayam was released, I was impressed with how raw it was. The maker didn’t have sophistication or craftiness but it was a genuine effort. He pawned his house for Rs. 80 lakh to make it. So, it doesn’t matter if the film was a hit or a flop.
How do you relate to Prince Mysshkin the character from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot ?
When I changed my name to Mysskin, I didn’t know how much I had understood the character. When I got into movies, I had to change my name. So I changed the spelling of the character’s name removing Prince from it to make it mine. I love being called that, just the sound of it. As time passes, I learn more things about the character and how pure he is. I don’t know if I will ever be like Prince Myshkin but I will always strive to be like him.
The net buzzes with several interpretations of the use of yellow in your films.
People seem to have given more thought to the colour than I have. Of course, I shot the song Vaazha Meenu sincerely and it was a huge hit. Later, when the producer asked for a similar item number, I repeated it as a joke. I believe yellow is the colour of vibrancy. But I’m more drawn to blue.
And the subtext of Onayum Aatukuttiyum being an autobiographical redemption of your own career?
I’m just glad my films evoke such interpretations. I have strong followers and equally strong detractors. Interpretations are given mostly by my admirers and Onayum Aatukuttiyum being my redemption is a Jungian way of looking at it. I don’t think one can fathom a person as he keeps changing everyday. Somewhere, during the making of Onayum, I wanted to tell people that I wanted to give them a good, sincere film — perhaps asking for another chance after Mugamoodi. Which I guess is redemption.